Super-Humanitarians and Everyday Humanitarians


by James Shreve, Advance Humanity Fellow

Is humanitarian a title worthy of aspiration? Of course, yes. You should volunteer at your local soup kitchen, support your public libraries, and encourage children’s development. Who would argue against such philanthropic interventions? The designation of humanitarian, though, comes at a price. You must, before all else, seek to serve other’s well-being, at times paying little attention to your own.

Few who truly fulfill the role are self-proclaimed, typically you are accepted as a humanitarian by others, or you do not receive much consideration in the arena. It is unreasonable to expect every single person to devote their life to humanitarian causes. Most of those who are unable have perfectly legitimate reasoning. The numbers of causes are so plentiful it often burdens one’s decision about what to promote, with the weight of guilt emanating from not serving other, equally as worthy causes. There is rarely munificent compensation in working for humanitarian organizations, and volunteering does not usually put food on the table. Being designated a noted humanitarian or philanthropist seemingly creates a divide between those who are seen as merely volunteering at soup kitchens and those who devote millions of dollars, or even their lives to likewise endeavors.

It is exactly this kind of segregation between super-humanitarians and their grassroots kin which must be eliminated. It is in this stead I advocate the gradual phasing-out of the title humanitarian or philanthropist in place of a term which more adequately details the spirit of the movement. When on the internet you search the term “humanitarian,” or “philanthropist,” you will rarely, unless you hold elite company, find somebody you know within the search results. This is understandable - to those who undertake the most ambitious projects, respect and credit is rightly given. However, where are the regular among us; the majority of humanitarians who dedicate their lives to the service of others without widespread recognition? In the wide-world of humanitarianism and philanthropy, their recognition is scarce, but this is no way means their contributions are any less valuable.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a humanitarian as: a person promoting human welfare and social reform: philanthropist. It details no pretention about who can be a humanitarian. Anybody can be a humanitarian, at any time. A person who is only able to dedicate one hour of their time as allowed by their work or parenting schedule to help the homeless is no less the definition of a humanitarian than a person who is employed full-time with its duties. Therefore,

I argue for not less of the super-humanitarians, certainly they are necessary, but for more people to fulfill the role of a local, small-scale facilitator. It is not the word “humanitarian” which is flawed, but the weighty connotation which must be altered to make room for the people who do what they can, when they are able to. Maybe, if the language was more welcoming, people would be able to see the designation as more attainable - a title every person is capable of achieving. Ideally, a word change could disarm the tired adage which states, “you can’t help everyone,” and promote those who feel likewise to stop worrying about everyone, and start helping someone or something. “Humanitarian” needs a noun modifier, a qualifier which more adequately describes the ethos driving the mass of people “promoting human welfare and social reform.” How about “everyday”?

Everyday Humanitarian does not mean you do a good turn daily, because life is not the Boy Scouts of America. People have bad days and days where their own needs must come first. Being an everyday humanitarian is to accept the need for philanthropic efforts and willingly submit to their causes. It means their efforts are not marginalized or demeaned by anyone, that they perform the necessary acts on a community level which super-humanitarians often have trouble fulfilling. They bridge the gap in-between projects which are large in scale and the kind of normal influence which is requisite on the local level. A large federal government may be appropriate for passing legislation meant to provide healthcare for low-and middle-income families, but it takes blood-donors, health-care personnel, volunteers, and everyday humanitarians at the community level to fulfill such ambition from not only the top-down, but from the bottom-up.

The last Thanksgiving before I moved to Malawi as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years, I did something with my sister I had never done before. We helped work at a church to cook and serve Thanksgiving dinner for the homeless, jobless, and whoever else wanted a full plate. I had done plenty of beneficent acts over the years during my involvement with Boy Scouts, my work with the Forest Service, and my AmeriCorps term, but nothing felt quite the same as this Thanksgiving. It could have been because I was too young to appreciate the impact on a person’s life a simple act of kindness can stimulate. This time, in the cafeteria of a little church in Cedar Rapids, Iowa I could embrace the gratitude of the people we served. I could see the thankfulness in their eyes; some a bit bewildered that a whole team of people, I remember there being about 20 volunteers, would come together in the service of others.

I’ve come a long way since then. Now I serve in a more socially recognized humanitarian position in the Peace Corps, and the message shines even more bright. Leave the super-humanitarians, the Warren Buffets to their work. It is beyond the scope of most people. On that day in Cedar Rapids there were no famous philanthropists to be found, but it made no difference to the needy recipients who were included in a Thanksgiving of their own. Nor did it make a difference to the people who helped facilitate the meal. We shared a common bond, a unity in the struggle which is uniquely human. Bill Gates was nowhere to be found. He didn’t need to be around. I’m sure he was dreaming about a method of refrigerating life-saving medicines in Africa without the use of electricity. Important topics well beyond the grasp of anyone present on that Thanksgiving Day. There we were, though, a group of ordinary people performing extraordinary acts of selflessness, taking time out of our own holiday. Everyday Humanitarians.

That’s what we were. Everyday Humanitarians.

The super-humanitarians need Everyday Humanitarians to implement their elaborate endeavors. Everyday Humanitarians need the super-humanitarians to design, fund and initiate projects to stand behind. There is no need for a gap, feelings of inferiority or superiority. There is only need for collaboration. People united on all scales and at all levels against the common enemies of mankind. In his famous inauguration speech, John F. Kennedy asked not what America could do for Americans, but what Americans could do for their country. The next statement of that speech is often forgotten, but it means so much more to me, and would perhaps mean more to others were it not overshadowed by the preceding chiasmus. Kennedy again queried, “Ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”

We can get busy working to exert a positive influence on our immediate surroundings, in our local communities. Accept your sphere of influence as a blessing. Get busy working to improve it. The world needs leaders, but not everyone wants to lead. Most will be followers. No matter in which category you fall, your effort is invaluable. Think Thanksgiving. Think like an Everyday Humanitarian.

James is currently serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Malawi. The contents of this post are his personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.